With DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans, the Sacramento Kings appear to have a promising nucleus for the future.
Appearances, however, aren't always what they seem as the Kings hope a coaching change can spark the duo heading into Thursday night's game versus the Milwaukee Bucks.
Paul Westphal was fired after a 2-5 start dropped the Kings into last place in the Pacific Division and replaced by assistant Keith Smart on Thursday afternoon. Even before the lockout, the season has been viewed as a crossroads for the franchise, which may again consider relocating from Sacramento if a financing deal for a new arena cannot be reached.
''I want to thank Paul for all of his effort on behalf of the Kings,'' said team president of basketball operations Geoff Petrie. ''Unfortunately, the overall performance level of the team has not approached what we felt was reasonable to expect. I wish him the best in his future endeavors.''
Westphal's falling out with forward DeMarcus Cousins may have been too much to overcome. He suspended the mercurial second-year pro for Sacramento's game on Jan. 1, criticizing Cousins' commitment to the team and claiming he asked to be traded, something the player's agent denies.
Petrie tabbed Smart, who went 36-46 as Golden State Warriors coach last season, to take over the team. Yet Smart may be hard-pressed to fix the defensive shortcomings of a team which currently ranks second-to-last in both defensive scoring at 102.4 points per game and defensive field goal percentage (48.5 percent).
The Warriors were tied for 27th in scoring defense at 105.7 points per game - one full point worse than Sacramento - in Smart's lone season.
The fifth overall pick in 2010, Cousins had a season-high 26 points off the bench in a 110-83 loss at Denver on Wednesday but is shooting just 38.6 percent overall while averaging 13.7 points and 9.3 rebounds. Evans, the 2010 NBA rookie of the year after averaging 20.1 points, is contributing 14.3 per game on 42.0 percent shooting.
Even without three key players and struggling offensively, the Bucks (2-3) may be catching the Kings at the right time. Milwaukee has dropped the first two games on its five-game western trip but has won its last three games at Sacramento.
Without star Andrew Bogut (personal reasons), swingman Mike Dunleavy Jr. (groin) and former King Beno Udrih (shoulder), the Bucks shot a paltry 30.5 percent from the field - including 2 of 21 from 3-point range - in an 85-73 loss to the Jazz on Tuesday.
"It's tough,'' said forward Drew Gooden, the lone bright spot with 24 points and 12 rebounds. "We can't win scoring 70-80 points. We've got to be in the high 90s to beat these teams. That comes with executing the offense."
Milwaukee has averaged 109.0 points during its three-game winning streak at Sacramento that follows a four-game road skid to the Kings. However, with Bogut (14.3 points per game, 10.0 rebounds per game), Dunleavy (10.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and Udrih (9.0 ppg) all likely to miss this season's annual visit, the Bucks' run in Sacramento could be in jeopardy.
They certainly need more production from guard Brandon Jennings, who has totaled 20 points in the last two games while shooting 9 of 35 overall and 0 for 11 from 3-point range. He averaged 22.7 on 46.0 percent shooting in the season's first three contests.
Jennings went 8 of 13 from beyond the arc and finished with 35 points in his only previous game at Sacramento, a 114-108 double-overtime victory March 19, 2010.